Answering nature’s call will help Wall Street

Beth Mendenhall

It’s five minutes till midnight, and American exceptionalism can’t save us now.

The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has identified climate change and environmental destruction as one of the primary threats to civilization as we know it, and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning United Nations International Panel on Climate Change has confirmed these conclusions.

Many Americans choose to ignore this under the assumption that the problem won’t affect them or it isn’t real, but the bulk of scientific opinion disagrees. The next few decades are critical to averting the coming catastrophe and reversing much of the damage wreaked on the biosphere since the Industrial Revolution. An ecosystem collapse, an increase in global temperatures, depletion of resources and water pollution are just some of the issues facing Earth today.

In spite of this, a 2009 Gallup poll indicates that for the first time in 25 years, a majority of Americans feels economic concerns should take precedence over environmental ones. Our priorities need to change.

Both the environment and the economy have the ability to adapt to changing conditions, but to different degrees. Evolution has tailored species to thrive in specific environments, so moderate changes in temperature, pH and other conditions can eradicate entire species without giving plants and animals the necessary time to adapt.

In contrast, the economy is based on human needs and desires, which frequently change but always exist. Industries lacking demand are not worth keeping – this keeps American markets competitive and the economy healthier as a whole. As needs and desires change, the economy should move in lockstep as much as possible. The harsh results of environmental degradation have changed our needs, and it’s the onus of the economy to follow.

Prioritizing protection of the environment will create new jobs in industries where longevity is all but guaranteed. Retrofit homes, alternative energies and sustainable urban planning are just some examples of budding industries whose demand extends far into the future.

Many arguments in favor of prioritizing the economy appeal to the plight of the unemployed, but few consider the weight of environmental degradation and climate change on the poor. Air and water pollution causes sickness in those who cannot afford to move to a less-tainted neighborhood, while resource depletion destroys subsistence livelihoods. Furthermore, climate change will be a primary culprit in rising food prices that result from lost harvests.

Discovering which policies and practices most effectively reduce and reverse the impacts of environmental exploitation is up to us. I only ask that you recognize the magnitude of the crises and consider what you can do to ensure that the planet is a good place to live in the decades and centuries to come.

Environmentalists can help spread the word by characterizing the advantages of their agenda in terms of both their environmental and economic benefits. The best thing we can do is express these priorities to our policymakers in Washington, D.C., as well as those in our local communities.

If we commit to change our mindset and prioritize protection of the environment over economic growth and protection of dying industries, we can turn back the doomsday clock.

Doing so may be the most important thing we can do as a species.

This column originally ran Sept. 16 in Kansas State University’s Kansas State Collegian. Content was made available by Uwire.